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Racial problems require more than multiracial congregations

Whites in multiracial congregations have more diverse friendship networks and are more comfortable with minorities — but that is more because of the impact of neighbors and friends of other races than due to congregations’ influence, a Baylor University study has found.

Kevin D. Dougherty

“Solving America’s racial problems may be hoping too much from religious congregations,” said Kevin D. Dougherty, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences and study co-author. “Where people live is more influential than where they worship in shaping racial attitudes.”

While a small but growing number of congregations are gathering attendees across racial lines and counting diversity as a central part of their mission, most Americans who attend worship do so mainly with those of their own racial or ethnic line. That is the case in nearly nine of 10 congregations, researchers said.

“The responsibility for moving toward racial integration still rests considerably with the majority group,” wrote authors Dougherty and Edward C. Polson, Ph.D., assistant professor in Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, in the article.

“People of color were historically excluded from institutions and areas of social life controlled by white Americans – including religious congregations and denominations,” Polson said. “Changing this pattern is not an easy thing and generally requires that the group who has historically done the excluding acknowledge the injustices that have led to the current reality and then take steps to foster more inclusive organizations.”

For predominantly white congregations or denominations in the U.S., this might mean acknowledging a history of racial discrimination and then taking steps to foster more diverse and inclusive leadership and membership, he said.

White non-Hispanics are the largest racial group in the United States, and the size and cultural prominence of white Americans continue to give this group a position of power in American society, Dougherty said.

The study — “Worshiping across the Color Line: The Influence of Congregational Composition on Whites’ Friendship Networks and Racial Attitudes” — is published in the American Sociological Association’s journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. Researchers analyzed data from Baylor Religion Survey’s second wave, collected in fall 2007. The survey was administered by the Gallup Organization to 1,648 respondents in a national random sample of English-speaking adults.

Polson and Dougherty discussed study findings in this question-and-answer interview:

Edward C. Polson
Edward C. Polson

Q: You mention in your study that a unique strength of U.S. religious life is that we are free to choose whether and where to worship — but that freedom may contribute to continued segregation. Why?

POLSON: American religion has long been segregated by race and ethnicity. Much of this was the direct result of discriminatory practices and policies. As towns grew and religion spread early in U.S. history, separate congregations would often be established for black and white Baptists or Methodists or Catholics in an area. When there weren’t separate congregations, black and white congregants were often required to worship separate from one another in the same congregation; white congregants in the main sanctuary and black congregants in balconies or meeting at separate times. Eventually, however, many groups that were excluded from full participation in the mainstream groups of the day sought to establish their own congregations and religious denominations. Among African-Americans, for example, we see the establishment of groups such as the Church of God in Christ and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Ethnic and immigrant groups also often sought to maintain unique religious and social identities by establishing congregations identified with their religious and ethnic heritage such as the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.

Fast forward to today, and a legacy of religious segregation combined with Americans’ freedom to choose their place of worship tends to reinforce the color line in American religion. People are free to choose where and with whom they want to worship. This freedom generally contributes to higher levels of commitment and participation. However, in practice, it also means that people often choose congregations that reflect their own racial and ethnic background. Worshippers tend to be attracted to groups that appeal to their own experiences, preferences, and social networks. These still tend to be patterned significantly by race and ethnicity. Patterns of religious segregation in religious life continue then, often without much serious thought or reflection on the part of worshipers and religious leaders.

DOUGHERTY: At the most intimate levels of people’s lives — family, friends and faith — the United States remains a racially divided nation. When people choose a congregation, they commonly choose to be with others they see as similar to themselves. The outcome is congregations are segregated by race, social class and now increasingly by politics.

Q: How can congregations “cross the color line” better?

POLSON: Our study suggests that congregations do have a role to play improving race-relations in the U.S. Positive contact in local congregations seems to contribute to improved cross-group relations generally. However, our findings also highlight the reality that healing long-standing divisions between white Americans and people of color, especially African-Americans, will require more than simply worshiping together. It will likely require continued structural and policy changes in American life – changes that decrease racial segregation in other areas of life. We found that the presence of African-Americans, Hispanic and Asian people in neighborhoods actually had a more significant impact on white attenders’ friendship networks than worshiping together. Congregations hoping to cross the color line and improve race-relations in their communities may do well to consider tangible ways they can support such changes and foster connections between different racial and ethnic groups.


  •   Religious whites, on average, report the most comfort with Asians; a comparable level of comfort with Hispanics; and noticeably less comfort with blacks.
  •   Older respondents and those who are married report having fewer non-white friends.
  •   Men, regular religious attendees and more liberal respondents report having more nonwhite friends.
  •   Respondents living in the East and the Midwest report having fewer non-white friends than those in the South, while people living in the West report having more.

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